Vera Institute of Justice Study Examines the Impact of The Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms in New York City

Study finds that drug law reforms led to a 35 percent rise in eligible defendants diverted to treatment, and cut racial disparities in half  

New York, NY (January 20, 2015)  – The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) today released a study examining  the impact in New York City of a series of New York State drug law reforms that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, use, or small-scale sale of illegal drugs and increased eligibility for diversion to treatment.   

The study, “End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City,” compared cases pre and post reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, changes in racial disparities in sentences, recidivism, and cost. Vera partnered with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers Univer­sity to conduct the study.   

“New York’s Rockefeller reforms were pioneering in our recent efforts to reduce unnecessary incarceration,” said Vera President and Director Nicholas Turner. “We are encouraged by some key findings - decreased rates of incarceration, better outcomes for people in treatment and reduced racial disparities. But our study also shows that, in order to maximize these positive outcomes and accomplish legislated goals, there is more work to do when it comes to implementation.”   

About The Rockefeller Drug Laws
Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug offenses, heralding a wave of mandatory sentencing statutes that swept the nation. These new laws contributed to dramatic increases in state prison populations and fueled the racial disparity that has come to characterize the U.S. criminal justice system.   

The last in a series of drug law reforms were passed in 2009 by the New York State legislature, and essentially dismantled what are commonly referred to as the Rockefeller Drug Laws.  

Key Findings 

“Our research demonstrates that drug law reforms have made an impact, and that New York City is moving in the right direction,” said Vera Vice President and Research Director Jim Parsons, also the study’s principal researcher. “The findings point to opportunities that New York City can seize to further expand access to diversion programs, promote recovery, and reduce crime.”  

With funding from the National Institute of Justice, researchers at Vera, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Rutgers University compared two matched samples of criminal defendants: people arrested for felony drug offenses or indicted on specified property charges in 2010, the year after drug law reforms took effect, and people arrested in 2008 for the same types of offenses.  Findings include: 

Increased Rate of Diversion

  • Researchers found a 35 percent rise in the rate of the diversion of eligible defendants to treatment. However, only one out of five eligible defendants in New York City was actually enrolled in treatment.

Variations Across Boroughs

  • Courts in Brooklyn were the most proactive in terms of screening for eligible defendants in 2010, with a screening rate of 46 percent (compared to 22 percent in the Bronx and 17 percent in Manhattan).
  • For every 1.5 people in Brooklyn arrested in 2010 and diverted to treatment, one person went to prison. The ratio in the Bronx favors diversion even more: for every 2.1 people diverted to treatment, 1 person went to prison. In Manhattan, however, the balance was reversed: for every one person diverted to treatment, 5.2 people went to prison.

Racial Disparities

  • Black and Hispanic defendants included in the sample of felony drug arrests from 2008 were three times more likely than white defendants to receive a prison sentence.
  • After the drug law reforms, based on the sample of cases from 2010, they were twice as likely as whites to go to prison following a felony drug arrest—and multivariate statistical analysis shows that these disparities was not fully explained by other factors, such as the person’s age, gender, criminal history, or current charge.

Reduced Recidivism

  • The recidivism rate of the post-reform sample of cases diverted to treatment was 36 percent, compared to 54 percent of the pre-reform sample of cases sentenced to prison, jail, or probation.
  • Moreover, defendants diverted to treatment post-reform were re-arrested fewer times on average and had fewer arrests for felony offenses compared to those who were sentenced to prison, jail, probation, or time served. And most important from a public safety perspective, only 3 percent of people enrolled in treatment were re-arrested for a violent crime compared to 6 percent of the pre-reform sample.

A research summary, including methodology, and the full technical report and findings are available at  

About the Vera Institute of Justice The Vera Institute of Justice combines expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety. Vera is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice policy and practice, with offices in New York City, Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. The organization’s projects and reform initiatives, typically conducted in partnership with local, state, or national officials, are located across the United States and around the world.